Xi Jinping's face dominates every wall and every section of a major new exhibition in the Chinese capital. Titled "Five Years of Sheer Endeavor," it portrays China's president as the guiding hand behind every national advance.
In photos and videos, he is pictured chatting to toothless, grinning villagers or surrounded by beaming schoolchildren, guiding white-coated scientists and hard-hatted engineers, and being greeted all over the world with pomp and pageantry. Even Barack Obama features, hand on chin, listening intently to the Chinese leader.
Scores of books and documentaries laced with rousing, patriotic music drum home the message: a leader with "resolve and wisdom," a man of the people, approachable and loved by all. Wherever Xi goes, he unleashes a whirlwind of "big-power charisma," China Central Television gushed about a man it rather ominously described as the nation's "supreme leader."
On Wednesday, China’s Communist Party stages a five-yearly National Congress where Xi will be formally granted a second — and supposedly final — five-year term as general secretary.
But such is the crescendo of praise directed by the Communist Party’s propaganda wing, many experts are wondering: In five years’ time, will Xi stay or will Xi go?
“Conventionally you wouldn’t expect adulation on such a scale before a leader assumes the second term, because the second term is usually guaranteed,” said party historian Zhang Lifan. “The propaganda eulogizing Xi is a reflection of his own insecurities around the upcoming party congress.”
China’s president and party leader, Zhang says, wants to ensure that the congress falls obediently into line behind him and that his acolytes win key leadership roles. That would pave the way for Xi to throw out the rule book, Zhang predicts, and retain power well into the next decade.
“What he wants to do is create a very personalized style of leadership where it seems there is no alternative to Xi Jinping in terms of taking the country forward,” said Rana Mitter, professor of modern Chinese history and politics at the University of Oxford. “The point of comparison is Vladimir Putin, who also runs a very personalized style of rule.”
Russia’s leader, of course, circumvented that country’s two-term presidential limit, ruling for four years through a proxy in the form of Dmitry Medvedev, before retaking the top job for an expanded six-year-long third term in 2012.
The question now is whether Xi will follow in Putin’s footsteps.
Communist China knows only too well the dangers of a personality cult and a leader who outstays his welcome. Mao Zedong may have led the party to power, but he also led the country into mass starvation under the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1962 and then into the collective madness of the Cultural Revolution. No one is suggesting that the adulation of Xi is comparable to the cult of Mao, or that he might unleash some comparable calamity on China; yet history still serves as warning.
Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, imposed a system of collective leadership in the 1980s, noted Susan Shirk, head of the China center at the University of California at San Diego, along with rules mandating fixed terms in office, a fixed retirement age and term limits.
For three decades, Deng’s model of collective leadership, balancing different views and different factions within the party, was remarkably successful, but by 2012 it was seen by many as having run aground. The economy was still booming, but corruption was rampant while fiefdoms corralled money and power strictly for their own interests.
Colorless men in dark suits lacked connection with ordinary people. Ideologically the party seemed adrift, its ruthless determination to prolong its rule indefinitely its main unifying force.
Enter Xi Jinping and a program to recentralize power, reinvigorate the party’s ideology with a new popular nationalism and “rejuvenate” the nation — a “China dream” of prosperity at home and respect on the world stage.
Xi set up "leading groups" of ministers and advisers to control every aspect of policymaking. Running many of the groups himself, he was soon nicknamed the "Chairman of Everything."
Abroad, state media showed him as august and imposing, but at home he was often depicted as approachable and folksy, eating steamed buns at a modest Beijing restaurant or being snapped with his pant legs rolled up, holding his own umbrella, at a dockyard visit in the rain.
Politically he was coldblooded, launching a campaign against corruption unprecedented in its scope. "It looks like Xi overstepped his own mandate and surprised many with his own political skill and ruthlessness," said Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism newsletter.
In the past five years, 1.34 million officials have reportedly been punished for corruption or violating party discipline, including several "tigers," or senior officials, dozens of senior military officers and two very senior generals. Several victims are portrayed in the exhibition, some crying tears of remorse.
Aspiring politicians now rush to join the bandwagon, says Shirk, eagerly praising Xi “in the hope it will advance their careers and protect them from being targeted” by the anti-corruption campaign.
Xi has also presided over the most dramatic crackdown on civil society and freedom of speech since the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests — hundreds of activists, lawyers, journalists and academics have been jailed, silenced or fired, the space for free speech online significantly narrowed, and talk of greater democracy for the people of Hong Kong crushed.
Nor is satire allowed when it comes to Xi worship. One man was sentenced to two years in jail in April for referring to China's leader as "steamed-bun Xi" — and to Mao as a bandit — in a chat group, while another was jailed and charged with subversion for referring to him as "Xitler" on Twitter.
But Xi has also presided over a dramatic expansion of China’s influence abroad, his “Belt and Road” project and a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank promising to lavish financial resources around the region and a program of island-building in the South China Sea showing his military muscle.
Yet if liberals and social reformers despair, many people in China applaud “Xi Dada,” their nickname for “Uncle Xi,” just as many Russians have embraced Putin’s populist nationalism.
“Xi Dada is different from previous leaders. He is a big personality who is tough,” said a 24-year-old postgraduate chemical engineering student, Jiao Hanhui, as he and his classmates looked at the scientific section of the exhibition. “The image of China is tougher than before on the world stage, and China has a bigger voice, as well.”
In bookstores around town, a collection of Xi's speeches, catchily titled "The Governance of China," is prominently displayed. State media says it is selling like "hot cakes," has received rave reviews and has been greeted around the world as a classic.
Any power grab inevitably creates enemies, and Xi may be more feared than loved by some party members. Following Chinese politics has been compared to peering into a black box, but the upcoming congress might give some clues about how effective Xi has been in clearing out his rivals and about how far his ambitions go.
One such clue: One of the party’s rising stars, Sun Zhencai, party secretary in Chongqing, was removed from office in July and accused of corruption, a sign perhaps that Xi would not allow anyone to steal his limelight. China watchers will be looking to see whether any other potential successor emerges at the meeting.
Promotions are usually determined by a combination of seniority and performance, balancing different factions, but Xi may seek to catapult his loyalists into senior roles, right up to the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee.
Another closely watched indicator will be what happens to Wang Qishan, the experienced head of the anti-corruption campaign who is seen as Xi's right-hand man. At 69, past practice suggests Wang should retire, but many people think Xi will rewrite the rules to retain or even promote him.
Whether Xi would simply stay on as president and party general secretary for a third term starting in 2022, take a Putinesque step of ruling through a puppet, or hover in the background with some other title, as Deng Xiaoping did, is uncertain. Despite Xi’s power, the party could push back against any such attempt. But the risks are evident.
"Xi must avoid the flaws of Putinism, which have set Russia on a trajectory for long-term stagnation," warns Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Overstaying may create a wholly fragile system that cannot survive without its core," he wrote, while "an obsession with stability — another negative feature of Putinism — may prevent many needed reforms."
Amber Ziye Wang contributed to this report.